After the unanticipated success of Zatoichi, Daiei Studios knew they had to capitalize on the suddenly popular property they’d created. They weren’t entirely sure how, but they knew they had to strike quickly while the iron of public awareness was still hot. They’d accidentally stumbled upon something that really resonated. Zatoichi was a significant character who needed to return. They wanted another film immediately. In order to facilitate this they grabbed their star, Shintaro Katsu, and one or two of the key actors from the first film, found a new director, and pumped a sequel out faster than one would think possible.
They turned to director Kazuo Mori to do the job. He’d previously taken a crack at a film based on the 47 samurai known as Samurai Vendetta. The film starred Shintaro Katsu, so there was clearly some familiarity between the two men. Kazuo Mori would go on to direct a few more Zatoichi films and the TV show, and eventually the third instalment of the Daimaijin kaiju series. He managed to direct an incredibly brisk film when tasked with filming The Tale of Zatoichi Continues. The breakneck pace of the film somehow finds room for multiple set pieces, backstory, conclusions, and dramatic deaths.
The seventy-minute film manages to check in on many left over characters from the first film and introduce and kill off an important new character. When we first meet Zatoichi in this film he’s asleep in a boat commandeered by bandits. The film sets up Zatoichi’s skill in a pretty thrilling way. One of the bandits angrily flips Zatoichi out of the boat. As the glowering criminal sits back down he suddenly realizes his face is bleeding and his sword is missing from its sheath. Both actions happened too fast to follow or predict.
The crooks chase the blind man down, finding him napping under a tree. Before they can really do anything a brooding, swarthy figure who is dressed in black, missing an arm, and followed by a skinny man appears. The man, in a manic flurry, draws his sword and dispatches the murderous men. As the dust from the slaughter, he strides towards the napping Zatoichi. The blind man has vanished though. The mysterious man in black stares on furiously. He’s a menacing figure, and clearly skilled and dangerous. When he sees his work is done he and his companion take their leave.
Zatoichi then wanders through a town, walking down an alley and peeing. Turns out he’s actually peeing right by a pre-arranged meeting spot. The man he’s supposed to meet emerges from a nearby building and brings Zatoichi in. He’s to massage a lord who’s visiting the town. Zatoichi can’t figure out why they’d hire a humble travelling masseuse to massage such an important person. After getting bathed the bumbling masseuse is sent in. The lord giggles through the whole massage, tugging at Ichi and muttering giddy gibberish. It seems the lord is not altogether of sound mind, a fact clearly hidden from the majority of his followers. After being exposed to this secret, Zatoichi leaves, but naturally he’s followed by samurai sent by the men who actually rule in the lord’s stead. A travelling masseuse is the perfect person to massage a lord when there’s a secret worth killing to protect. Who would even know Zatoichi had gone missing? The blind man is surrounded by samurai who have no idea of the danger they’ve walked into. He calmly and casually dispatches the assassins, stating that if they’d simply asked him to he would have kept their secret.
The men who rule for the lord won’t have this. When news of the failed attempt on Zatoichi’s life reaches them they send out their samurai in full force to comb the town and find the masseuse. Zatoichi hides in a brothel, where a particularly lissome prostitute takes a liking to him. He remarks that she smells like “her.” The prostitute talks about how much she likes Zatoichi and the fact that her dad was a travelling masseuse too. Which is all rather comically Freudian. Unpleasant Electra complexes aside, there does seem to be a legitimate connection between the two. Suddenly samurai knock on the door and Osetsu quickly hides Zatoichi. Instead of samurai however, the figures demanding entrance turn out to be the same swarthy one-armed man and his companion. They leer at the prostitutes before noticing Osetsu, just returned from hiding Zatoichi. The man seems as drawn to her as Ichi, commenting that she looks like a woman he lost his arm over. It’s pretty unclear whether or not Ichi and the man are aware of each other during this scene. Between the two they illustrate a tragic story. Ichi was courting a woman who looked like Osetsu, but when his blindness became an issue she left him for some hateful man. This left Zatoichi angry and violent and he lopped off the man’s arm. In this moment it becomes clear the two are destined to fight. Osetsu angrily turns down the one-armed man shortly before the samurai arrive. She and Zatoichi leave to spend a night in a hut by the beach.
Meanwhile the lord’s men have gone to the local mob, recruiting them into the hunt for Zatoichi. Zatoichi and Osetsu share a loving breakfast that morning on the beach before their hut is surrounded by gangsters. There’s another explosion of violence as Zatoichi dispatches the mobsters. Shintaro Katsu is really so great at his role. The way he portrays this blind fighting is really skillful. The fact that Zatoichi’s blindness is a handicap that must be overcome in a combat situation is wonderfully communicated. There’s a slight stumble to Ichi’s steps, there’s a cautious and inquisitive nature, a sense that he’s merely reacting to external stimuli. Seeing anyone other than Katsu play this role is almost unimaginable; he brings so much character to Ichi, as well as a powerful sense of realism.
After this beach side spurt of violence, Zatoichi heads towards the town he was in in the first film. At the end of The Tale of Zatoichi he promised to return to the grave of Hirate in a year and pay tribute to the noble man he killed. It seems that year has come. However the mobsters now after him have gone ahead of him, contacting the yakuza he worked for last film before he can arrive there. Zatoichi is immediately suspicious of the situation when he arrives. As he should be, for it seems the two mobsters are working together.
Meanwhile the one armed man, named Yoshiro, and his companion are on the run. It turns out the two are fairly brutal criminals. They’ve robbed, pillaged, murdered, and raped. They’ve disguised themselves as samurais in the hopes of travelling unsuspected. However the mobsters recognized them for who they are and basically told them to get the hell out of their town before sending a man to follow them. They hide in some bamboo then leap out and murder their tail. They increasingly seem like horribly despicable characters, and now they’re fleeing for their life.
They all end up in the same village. Zatoichi meets Otane by the grave of Hirate. The woman who fell in love with Ichi in the first film has moved on. She’s getting married, but she still bears fond feelings for the blind masseuse and is enthused to see him again. As they stand by Hirate’s grave a mass of yakuza arrive. They agree to move to less sacred ground to fight. Zatoichi kills the mobsters but, as he closes in on the boss working for the lord’s men, Yoshiro interrupts them, claiming Zatoichi for his own. He wants to kill Ichi before anyone else can. Zatoichi now recognizes the menacing figure as his own brother. In fact Yoshiro is played by Tomisaburo Wakayama, Shintaro Katsu’s real life sibling. The two fight before Yoshiro ends up partially impaled on his own blade. As the dust settles on their combat a massive wave of yakuza, working under orders given by Ichi’s past ally, arrive.
Zatoichi refuses to see himself and his brother die at the hand of the yakuza and so they flee into the river, swimming to safety. Zatoichi, the dying Yoshiro, and Otane all end up hidden by a young monk. Ichi tries to save his brother, but ultimately Yoshiro succumbs to his wounds. Ichi essentially says his goodbyes to Otane before heading back outside, anger in his eyes.
Which leads us to the incredibly badass ending of this speedy film. Now Zatoichi has seen two deaths, Hirate and Yoshiro, which he feels the same mob boss is responsible for. Zatoichi heads out towards the yakuza boss who’s surrounded by his men. Zatoichi confronts him, vocalizing his blame. Then Zatoichi charges into the mass of men. His sword flashes, seemingly striking the boss. But before his target even hits the ground the film ends.